Last week I was lucky enough to share an evening onstage with Ron Howard. I knew it would be fun, because he was a great guest when I screened Frost/Nixon at my USC class. I also knew that we’d spend a lot of time discussing The Andy Griffith Show, because this engagement took place in Mayberry country: Greensboro, North Carolina, to be exact. Our appearance was part of a long-running Bryan speakers’ series sponsored by Guilford College. Past and future guests range from Bill Clinton to Anderson Cooper. For Howard, this was an unusual sort of homecoming: a visit to the location he and his make-believe family made so real for millions of fans.
Fortunately, Ron is not only a nice man, but a savvy one. He understood what the audience wanted to hear, although there was an audible sigh of disappointment when he admitted that he and his cast mates never set foot in North Carolina. The opening scene where he and Andy toss rocks into the lake was filmed alongside the Hollywood Reservoir.
He has nothing but happy memories of working on the show, and says Andy Griffith fostered a collaborative tone that made it especially rewarding. He credits his father Rance (who’s still acting today) with preparing him for the job, when he was just six years old, and keeping him grounded during the series’ long run.
We also discussed his directing career, of course, although we only had time to touch on a few highlights. For the high-profile TV movie Skyward (1980) he had to deal with the formidable Bette Davis, who insisted on calling him “Mr. Howard” until she decided if she liked him or not. Noting that her favorite director, William Wyler, always wore a suit and tie in the photos he’d seen, Ron decided to dress accordingly for their first day of shooting in Plano, Texas, even though the temperature rose to 100 degrees. Toward the end of the afternoon, he offered the actress a bit of advice on timing her exit from a scene so she would deliver her last line at the doorway. She tried it and thanked him for the suggestion. When they wrapped, he said, “Miss Davis, great first day.” She responded, “OK, Ron, see you in the morning,” and, he recalls, “patted me on my ass. That was a big day.”
Given the attention Michael Keaton has drawn for his bravura performance in Birdman, I said I’d never forget his explosive entrance in Howard’s first theatrical film, Night Shift (1982). Ron says it was his Happy Days costar Henry Winkler signing on that made the movie possible, but every contemporary comedy star they approached (Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Bill Murray) turned them down. Keaton filled that void and became an overnight star.
In a similar vein, Howard steered Tom Hanks toward genuine stardom in Splash (1984) but remembers that when he was first announced for the leading role in Apollo 13, skeptics wondered why a comedic actor was being cast as astronaut Jim Lovell. By the time the space-mission movie was shot and released, Hanks had proven himself in Philadelphia and Forrest Gump.
We didn’t have a chance to talk about Ron’s first behind-the-camera adventure, making Grand Theft Auto for the legendary B-movie meister Roger Corman. On the other hand, he invoked the spirit of low-budget filmmaking when discussing his recent film Rush. With a limited timetable for capturing scenes on an auto race track, he finished a shot and started jogging toward his next set-up, with a young assistant breathlessly following behind. She asked why he was running and he explained that if he managed to squeeze in two extra shots that day, and continued at that pace, he’d not only stay on schedule but possibly get ahead. Roger Corman would have been proud.
As Ron and I stood backstage at the huge arena where we appeared, with an audience of 3,500 awaiting our entrance, I heard a speaker thank Wells Fargo Bank for being a series sponsor. It triggered a thought that I withheld until we were seated onstage. I then asked if Ron thought that the bank was participating in order to pay tribute to his vocal debut in The Music Man, more than fifty years ago.
With that, he burst into a rendition of “The Wells Fargo Wagon,” complete with lisp, that had me (and many in the crowd, I’m sure) beaming from ear to ear. Ron Howard may be a world-class filmmaker, but it seems he’s still a performer at heart.
(photo by Ron Brown)